To start with the basics, an asylum seeker is someone who has left their country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another country because of danger back home, and who is waiting to hear the outcome.
Under international law (the 1951 UN Convention), a refugee is someone who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to…avail himself of the protection of that country’.
If successful, asylum applicants to the UK are awarded refugee status and then granted ‘leave to remain’ – in other words, legal permission to stay in the UK for five years. If the situation in their home country has not improved after those five years, they can apply to stay permanently.
If unsuccessful in their asylum application, they can be deported or appeal against the decision in a fixed time period. If they can gather fresh evidence to support their application, they can submit a fresh claim.
Jargon buster: what’s in a name?
Some other commonly used terms:
Migrant – the general term used for someone who leaves their home country for any reason at all, which could include to join family, to work, or to escape social and political problems
Economic migrant – the phrase used for someone who moves to another country to find work or in search of what is described as ‘a better life’. Refugees and asylum seekers are not economic migrants
Forced migrant – the phrase used to define someone who moves to another country in order to survive – in other words responding to ‘push’ rather than ‘pull’ factors
Refugee – someone who moves to another country in order to be safe from conflict or persecution
Refused asylum seeker – someone whose asylum application has been unsuccessful and has no other claim for protection awaiting a decision. Some return voluntarily, others are forcibly removed